The City Council Speaker Weighs in on the School Discipline Code

Days after the schools chancellor released a series of proposed changes to the discipline code that would result in fewer suspensions and a greater reliance on counseling, the City Council Speaker has entered the fray, applauding the department for its efforts, but calling for even more reliance on alternative discipline methods.

In the revised code, Dennis M. Walcott, the chancellor, wants the department of education to move more towards “restorative approaches” to discipline, and to rely less on kicking students out of school.

The proposed code would limit the number of infractions that subject students to suspension and would shorten the length of the suspensions. Student advocacy groups have long said that the current code pushes too many students out of the classroom, alienates them from their peers and increases their chances of dropping out for committing minor acts.

Also, the proposal discourages schools from removing students from class for being late, talking back, or carrying prohibited items, like cell phones. It would also make it harder to suspend students for smoking, gambling or lying to a teacher.

But in a three-page letter addressed to the Chancellor, Christine C. Quinn, the speaker and a leading candidate for mayor, said she wants the education department to make the code even less punitive. She also wants it to include more training for teachers and principals.

Ms. Quinn and Councilman Robert Jackson, chairman of the city council’s education committee, said they were pleased to see the city moving away from measures that could often have a negative effect on student communities, but called on the DOE to decrease suspensions even more. They also asked the DOE to provide online resources for them, and information in the code book itself.

“They are moving in the right direction,” Mr. Jackson said. “But they are not moving enough. We need to deal with what students’ issues are inside school rather than suspending them.”

The proposed changes to the code will be discussed at a public hearing at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Stuyvesant High School.

In their letter, Ms. Quinn and Mr. Jackson also asked the DOE to provide more assistance to educators who are helping students re-enter school after a suspension and to encourage them to more effectively communicate with parents about various approaches to discipline.

In recent years, school safety has been a hot button issue in the city with student advocacy groups routinely calling for laxer standards, insisting that punitive measures – particularly ones that kick students out of school — have a destabilizing effect on the school community and focus too little on root causes of misbehavior. There has also been persistent concern that minority students and at-risk students receive the bulk of suspensions.

In the 2010-2011 school year, over 73,000 New York City students were suspended. Over 50 percent of them were black even though black students only make up 32 percent of the student population. Special education students make up 30 percent of suspensions; they are only 17 percent of the population.

The proposed code would also prohibit students from being suspended for “insubordination” a victory for advocates who have long called that an overly vague “catch-all” for students who are difficult to manage.

And it would also discourage long suspensions, which can last up to a year for students who are caught with weapons on campus or threaten other students. Instead, educators would be encouraged to utilize more progressive discipline tactics like peer mediation, conflict resolution, counseling and mentoring.

The proposed revisions come 18 months after the city council passed aStudent Safety Act, which required the DOE and the Department of Education to report on school safety issues on a quarterly basis. Officials from Ms. Quinn’s office said data from those reports and independent studies linking suspensions to drop-out rates had prompted her increased interest in this issue. The letter said she and Mr. Jackson want to help create school environments that are “supportive places for students to learn and grow.”

Ms. Quinn worked in collaboration with advocacy groups who have also praised the city for the proposed revisions. They have asked the city to go further by requiring the schools to use alternative discipline measures rather than just encouraging them.

“It is great that the DOE is starting to think of discipline in a more holistic way,” said Avni Bhatia, a staff attorney for Advocates for Children of New York. “But because there are no requirements for schools to use these new practices, we’re concerned that schools that have long relied on punitive policies will continue to do so.”

Mr. Walcott said about the letter: “I appreciate the Speaker and Education Chair’s suggestions as we roll out proposed changes to the discipline code.”

“In fact today, my staff met with the Speaker’s staff on her suggestions and we are reviewing them,” he continued, in his email response. “We are holding a public hearing on the proposed changes on Tuesday and welcome the public’s comments.”

Kyle Spencer is a freelancer writer in New York City.